Summertime in New England brings the re-opening of the classic new England ice cream stand and with it bounties of joy. There is nothing better on a humid summer night here on the east coast than heading to the local ice cream shack, getting a lobster roll or a hot dog with the same style of fries that every place seems to make (crisp and battery on the outside, creamy on the inside), a lemonade, and following it all up with an ice cream cone. Something about the air that surrounds these kinds of places is magical, making all the food some of the best you’ve ever had despite its humble origins. New England ice cream culture is all about the experience. It’s not meant to be the best, most artisanal ice cream you’ve ever had, but should serve as a perfect cherry on top to a day of mini-golf and swimming in the summer sun.
One of the most famous locations for such a cone is Four Seas Ice Cream in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. An age-old institution, Four Seas sets the standard for ice cream shack experiences and is often the go-to suggestion made by any local to a visitor of The Cape. So, when I was making the trip to visit my aunt in the area, I knew we were going to have to make a stop.
The day was idyllic: blue skies dotted with the occasional cumulus cloud and a cool seaside breeze making it just cool enough that you wanted to put on a sweatshirt, but not so cold that you would say no to a frozen treat (if such a temperature exists, which I doubt. Which must be the kind of attitude that has made New England Ice Cream Culture rise to fame, for how else would a place known for its colder months also come to be known as an ice cream Destination? We’ll have it any time, anywhere, well into the fall months and starting before winter is even BEGINNING to end). After indulging in some of the best lobster roll and clam strips we’ve ever had at another institution of The Cape, Spanky’s, my mom and I made the scenic drive to Four Seas, passing small cottages and multi-acre estates alike by the winding edge of the sea.
Tucked a little inland was Four Seas, complete with white siding and an old screen door – the stereotypical emblems of such places – that was bursting to the seams with locals getting their first fixes of the summer. It was a little different having an inside area for ordering and seating rather than an entirely outdoor affair, but even the interior stayed true to the aesthetic – a little scraggily but full of personality and stories to tell, and certainly welcoming you in to hear them.
The flavor listing was extensive, and the crowded interior was putting the pressure on us to figure out our order fast. Always aiming for two different scoops, I settled on a classic – chocolate chip cookie dough, and an exciting innovation – penuche.
A side note on penuche. I was unaware that I loved penuche until this winter when I realized what it was. Only this Christmas, when I set out to make some as presents for my family did I put a name to it after being informed of it by my parents. The brown sugar-based fudge had shown up during many a Christmas time much to my delight, offering a pleasant variation from the chocolate fudge that was more pleasing than a regular ol’ peanut butter fudge, which has simply never won its way into my top methods of showcasing peanut butter. Though similar in color, the penuche could not be compared to anything else, a creation entirely its own. While a little tedious, time-consuming, and technically nerve-wracking, homemade penuche is totally worth it. Rich, salty, sweet, and butterscotchy, it houses the iconic flavors of the holiday season all in one smooth cube full of dedication, which makes it all the more rewarding and tasty.
So… penuche ice cream? Sign me up! My mother felt similarly, and hopped on board the penuche train, pairing it with a chocolate almond deal. We took our cones outside and proceeded to eat them in the parking lot seating area like true New Englanders.
The chocolate chip cookie dough was on top, so I began with the classic flavor. I am a huge fan of cookie dough in ice cream, and cookie dough in general, but has been so long since I have had a plain old chocolate chip cookie dough, as I often get a chocolate based cookie dough flavor, or one of the multitudes that Ben and Jerry’s offers (here we may take a moment to acknowledge the king of ice cream flavors, Half Baked, and its ability to never fail on delivering utter perfection). But I often refrain from getting the original cookie dough flavor because of the tricky nature of a vanilla base. It is so rare that a vanilla ice cream will truly satisfy me in the way a good vanilla should. There is a reason that vanilla has been thought of as “plain” for so long, for often when you order something that is advertised as “vanilla”, it is missing those delicate, floral notes that can make vanilla so exciting. Yes, exciting! And that is why I tend to refrain from ordering anything where it is the star. Because I’ve had good vanilla. I know what I’m looking for. And it simply is not worth the experience of consuming anything less while thinking of what I really wanted the whole time. A low-quality chocolate will beat out a low-quality vanilla experience any time in my view.
This was my concern with the flavor that has now become a standard at ice cream stands across America. That has been the muse for flavor creators for years now. But when I had Four Seas’ scoop of it, I saw once again how it came to gain this space amongst in the frozen treat elite. This scoop wasn’t leaning on the cookie dough to make it enjoyable, but rather used its three components – the vanilla ice cream, the chocolate chips, and the cookie dough – to create one unified flavor that was enjoyable in every aspect. The ice cream came in smooth and cool with vanilla flavor that spread itself across the palate, showing me what vanilla ice cream was really about, and earning the tiny crunch of chocolate chips and the proceeding smoosh of cookie dough that we all look forward to. This showcased chocolate chip cookie dough as the perfect cap to a summer night, lightly cooling you off while still having pockets of sugary, cookie goodness.
With the surprise stardom of the cookie dough, the penuche had even more pressure from my palate to deliver – especially given there were no beloved mix-ins to hide behind. But with flavors such as butterscotch, which is essentially what we were dealing with, there is a stronger chance that the plain base will be all you need.
And yes, there was the round hit of cooked sugar coming through that makes penuche so great. But it felt as though the flavor dial was turned down a touch. If the notes had not been executed so well I might not have found as disappointing, but because I could taste the goodness that was there, it made me long for it all to come through just a little stronger. Penuche is decadence. It fills the mouth and titillates your taste buds sparking a salty/sweet craving that just won’t stop. This ice cream iteration had those beginnings, but was slightly lackluster on the follow through.
Despite not being everything we were hoping for, the penuche ice cream was an interesting and altogether pleasant side trip. But at the end of the day, when you’re going to a place like Four Seas Ice Cream, you’re not there to experiment or try something new. It is there to serve you the classics. To serve you one simple evening in the clean summer air with your favorite go-to flavor amongst friends, both in front of and behind the counter. Four Seas brings years of experience to the table and it shows. They know what they’re about, they know what their customers want, and they execute it with love. While they have some more unique menu items as well that could be worth a try on one special night, they give you the perfect environment and perfect ice cream to round out your summer days.